Darfur desert sands bear witness to a troubled region

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Arab militiamen, government soldiers, rebels and villagers displaced by the fighting... all have traversed the arid orange-brown desert sands of Shangil Tobaya in Sudan’s troubled western region of Darfur.

Its problems were evident beneath the wide open skies of this area between Darfur’s two main towns of El Fasher and Nyala, as foreign diplomats and journalists made a rare visit this week with U.N. officials.

They flew to the desert in Mi-8 Russian helicopters of the African Union-U.N. Mission in Darfur, landing just outside the barbed wire-enclosed UNAMID base.

Peacekeepers stood guard in a shimmer of distant heat, against a backdrop of low mountains.

Security officers accompanying one delegate chambered rounds in their rifles and pistols as soon as the aircraft touched down, and the diplomats climbed aboard armoured vehicles.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said early this year that a rebel ambush of government troops was followed by aerial bombing of alleged insurgent locations around Shangil Tobaya in November and December.

Continued fighting in the region over the past seven months has created “many, many, many new arrivals” at camps for displaced people (IDPs), a local source said.

The security situation remains “unpredictable”, another local source said.

“Maybe tomorrow there will be some clashes.”

Peacekeepers said that shooting is often heard at night outside their base.

Passenger buses pass frequently on the road between El Fasher and Nyala near the UNAMID compound.

Rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army’s Minni Minnawi faction are present in the region, and there have been attacks on commercial convoys along with armed robberies, one local source said.

The rebels, who have been fighting for a decade, often enter IDP camps in search of provisions, while another problem comes from Arab militia, sources said.

“Most of the farming areas are being used by Arab militia” for grazing, which prevents displaced people from returning to plant seasonal crops, one said.

Before flying to Shangil Tobaya the foreign envoys held talks with U.N. officials in El Fasher for a two-yearly review of the situation in Darfur.

The meeting expressed “grave concern” at Darfur’s deteriorating security. At the same talks, the region’s top official, Eltigani Seisi, called for a “show of force” against tribal militia violence.

Ethnic clashes, and to a lesser degree fighting between government forces and rebels, have forced an estimated 300,000 people in Sudan’s far west to flee this year.

Some have ended up at Shadad IDP camp, a collection of thatched conical huts where donkeys forage within sight of UNAMID’s base.

More than 1,000 men, women and children turned out to welcome the diplomats and UNAMID chief Mohamed Ibn Chambas to the camp.

“Well Come Well Come”, a sign said.

Women in coloured traditional robes held trays of incense, waved twigs, ululated, banged drums and held ceremonial gifts aloft in a noisy ceremony.

UNAMID brought donations of its own: a truckload of solar-powered radios and orange water containers which women can roll instead of carrying, to ease their burden.

A small freshly painted building houses the camp’s medical clinic, built by the peacekeepers.

At the local market, food was being handed out. Hundreds of sacks of sorghum labelled “From the American people” were piled ready for distribution.

Dust-caked children swarmed the door of a journalists’ car, asking for water.

At the nearby town the visiting dignitaries were treated to another loud welcome.

“Peace is our major demand,” a sign said in English as a man with a loudspeaker led chants for peace in Arabic.

About 30 camels lined up behind the crowd, some of their riders bearing spears.

As a local official gave a speech asking the international community to improve health and other facilities, UNAMID brought animal herders and farmers together for a workshop on reducing tensions between them.

Competition for land, water and other resources is a key driver of tribal conflict in Darfur.

Government militiamen in civilian clothes and in an open-topped green truck stopped at the ceremony. One fighter sported a bushy beard and sunglasses.

Behind him, a young man stood hanging tightly to a mounted machine gun as they drove off again.

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